Named as a co-conspirator in the Watergate investigation and about to become impeached, Richard Nixon becomes the first U.S. president to resign. Long lines and high prices at the gas pumps are results of the energy crisis caused by the OPEC oil embargo. Meanwhile, there is greatness in sporting life, with Hank Aaron surpassing Babe Ruth in career home runs and Muhammad Ali reclaiming the heavyweight crown with an upset of undefeated George Foreman. Before resigning, Nixon addresses a crowd of 85,000 in Spokane for the opening of Expo ’74. Seattle celebrates its first Gay Pride Week and by year’s end an NFL expansion franchise is granted to Seattle.
The value of first impressions cannot be overstated. That first look, that first sighting, that first visceral emotion can extend far into the future, sometimes for a lifetime. Washington’s first encounter with a professional soccer club all its own has been compared to a fairytale, full of such romance, optimism and magic. It is called, by some, Camelot, a reference to the legends of King Arthur, which launched a movie and major musical, and the early days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. For that summer, everything about the newly-formed Seattle Sounders and their fast-won fans seems to align perfectly.
It all begins less than six months before the first kick, when the North American Soccer League awards an expansion franchise. The ownership group is a Who’s Who of local businessmen whose names, such as Nordstrom, Sarkowsky, Skinner, Bean and Wright, lend instant credibility, far beyond what other NASL teams could comprehend. Their choice for the face of the franchise also proves providential. Head coach John Best is an accomplished player with movie-star looks, charm and eloquent British speaking.
Beyond media appearances, Best recruits a mixture of young and veteran players, all committed to playing for one another and growing the game. Twelve are British, with four Americans, including two locals, Ballan Campeau and Roger Goldingay. The foreigners are largely acquired on loan and arrive just a few days prior to the opening match, at Los Angeles. If Best is the visionary for what the Sounders can become, his lieutenant proves to be the galvanizing force on the field. Jimmy Gabriel, a legend at Everton for much of his career, is the most accomplished player. He is both assistant coach and captain, starting in central defense.
With the only other major sports – Seattle Sonics and Washington Huskies football – in the offseason, the Sounders’ promotional efforts are unfettered, and business partnerships blossom. As the season approaches there is a growing buzz, although much of it is curiosity driven. Youth soccer has been growing throughout the city and suburbs yet there is no expectation that crowds will number more than 6-7,000 or approximately the gate for past international exhibitions. Still, that would be above the overall NASL average of 5,800 in 1973.
To almost everyone’s surprise, over 12,000 (just a few hundred shy of capacity) descend upon Memorial Stadium for the inaugural home game versus Denver. Some were adults, many ethnic, who played or watched any high-level game in these parts. Many were families of young players. Broadcaster Bob Robertson has barely set the scene when he barks his first goal call as Willie Penman scores in the second minute, then John Rowlands doubles it in the 13th. In between the goals in a 4-0 win, there was a genuine appreciation for the skill, endurance and physicality.
“When they started moving the ball around and passing the ball, I sensed there was a kind of hush that fell over the crowd,” noted Robertson, who had played himself as a boy. “It was sort of like, ‘What’s this?’”
While the victory was emphatic and the goals aplenty, it was what happened moments after the final whistle which seemed to make the most lasting impression. Said Robertson: “I’m not sure whether somebody suggested it or whether they just did it, but they went to the center circle and turned and faced out in a big circle and waved to the crowd. As I saw it at that time, that’s where the love affair was born. That’s where they became the lads. They were Seattle’s team at that point.”
There will be tragedy, the loss of ever-popular Pepe Fernandez to a broken leg. There will be ultimate disappointment, the elimination from playoff contention in the final week. But there is no shortage of heroics from the likes of John Rowlands, Gabriel, Hank Liotart, Davey Butler and Barry Watling. By the fifth home date, there is no more space for fans, even though management keeps adding temporary seats.
Fernandez, who would be greeted with long-lasting ovations when he returned, on crutches, remembers it as something very special. “There was a connection with the team and the fans. We would spend time with the kids, we would take pictures and sign autographs with the kids,” he said. “It was a beautiful connection, a beautiful time.”